“When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What he eventually finds in that new world, nobody can predict.”
These are the final ominous lines of the 1954 monster movie Them! – which predicted that man would soon be challenged by giant… mutant… ants. The creatures emerge from the New Mexico desert, and eventually make their way to the underground sewers of Los Angeles. Government officials declare martial law, and bring in lots of flamethrowers… all the while wondering if this is just the beginning. Is L.A. doomed?
Today, I had a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen, at the new Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. Them! was presented as part of the 2007 L.A. Film Festival - the fourth entry in a (regrettably short) lineup of films called “L.A. Destroys Itself.” It was preceded by 1984’s Night of the Comet (if you haven’t seen it, think Night of the Living Dead meets Valley Girl), John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape from L.A. (1996), and the campy Chuck Heston disaster film Earthquake (1974), presented in Sensurround. Last on the roster is tonight’s screening of the apocalyptic romance Miracle Mile (1988).
Seeing all of these disaster flicks in such a short period of time makes me wonder: Why do Los Angeles filmmakers have such an obsession with destroying their city? There are plenty of titles that could have been added to the lineup... Mother Nature gave L.A. a pretty good beating in the recent blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Martians did the damage in the original War of the Worlds (1953), and terrorists recently nuked the city in TV’s 24. If you want to dig a little deeper, there’s the all-consuming fire at the end of John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975). That movie took its cue from the Nathanael West's immortal 1939 novel, which determined the tone of practically all fiction about Los Angeles.
Lured by the impossible promises of the city’s earliest “boosters,” West saw Los Angeles as a failed dream machine – a grotesque un-reality that could only be cured by its complete and utter destruction. He was not the first cynic to voice this opinion, nor was he the first to impose death on Hollywood’s iconic landscape. Raoul Whitfield’s 1931 novel Death in a Bowl had already imagined murder at the newly-built Hollywood Bowl.
Some say that this was the predecessor of the hardboiled detective novel, popularized by L.A. writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain – who also liked to imagine that Angelinos were right on the edge of destruction, poised to crash into the ocean, get crushed by a landslide, burned alive in a brush fire or simply swallowed by the earth.
Perhaps this grim mentality was, to a degree, inevitable. After all, the west coast once represented the final frontier of western civilization… When it was settled, the dream was bound to die.
Except it didn’t.
A few months ago, I read an article by long-time Los Angeles resident Ray Bradbury, who said that people don’t come here for the city itself. They come for the freedom the city gives them – freedom to be who they want to be, and do what they want to do. While the nature-based myth of this final frontier might not be as pure as it once was (the land of eternal sunshine is now the land of eternal smog - a testament to overpopulation), Los Angeles is nevertheless a city of dreamers – people who are always creating new myths.
In fact, maybe that should be a theme for next year’s film festival. There are plenty of great films about life inside the dream machine. Allow me to recommend Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Grand Canyon (1991) Barton Fink (1991), Mulholland Drive (2001)…
In the meantime, I'm happy to keep watching those lovable mutant ants...